VHS tapes currently taking up massive amounts of space in Warren Ellis' home: The Sweet Smell of Success, 12 Angry Men, The Singing Detective, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Andy Warhol's Heat, Tetsuo the Iron Man, and three volumes of Max Headroom. Important to note: Warren Ellis does not currently own a VHS player.
Turns out, the acclaimed comic book writer's pack rat lifestyle isn't too far off from the sensibilities of his latest creation, NYPD Detective John Tallow. The lead of Ellis' new novel Gun Machine, which hit the New York Times bestseller list after only five days, Tallow is a hardboiled cop battered down the city of New York. He also loves to read. "There were several bits where I was thinking, 'in several years, this could be me,'" Ellis says. "Snowed under with the last magazines subscriptions left on the planet, the iPad, the slightly broken Kindle, and … a stack of videotapes."
Gun Machine picks up with Tallow at the brink of a career-shaping discovery. After reporting to the scene of a violent disturbance in an old Pearl St. building, Tallow uncovers an apartment covered wall to wall in guns. A little CSI digging later reveals that each firearm is connected to a cold case murders dating back decades. Saddled with the responsibility to crack the complex web of deaths, Tallow embarks on a journey through New York that puts him on the track of a shadowy assassin ingrained in the city's history.
For Ellis, whose comic work includes Red, Global Frequency, and a number of superhero titles, Gun Machine was never a story he considered telling in graphic novel form. "There are only so many comic pages you can write of a guy sitting on his own, thinking," Ellis says. The writer describes the differences between comic and prose writing as "radical" and not obvious to the outsider's eye. In his comics, Ellis says he only has an average of 28 words per panel and a responsibility to describe everything in the frame. Novel writing is the Wild West. "Part of the joy of writing and reading novels is that you get to generate the picture in your own head. Everyone sees that differently, so you have to work the visuals in broad strokes most of the time. You're trying to evoke a scene less than you're trying to describe it in crystalline specificity."
Compared to the restrictive art of comic writing, Ellis' language in Gun Machine explodes with color, the author taking full advantage of the form while never laying it on too thick. "What you might be seeing is my intention to write better prose," Ellis says. He admits that his first attempt at a book, Crooked Little Vein, was "fairly simple and straightforward." He looks back at it as a crude first outing, acting largely as proof that he could actually write a book. "The question there was if I could get to the end of one and not embarrass myself. Victory was finishing the damn thing."
The genesis of Gun Machine dates back to when Ellis was discussing a film adaptation of his graphic novel Gravel with Legendary Pictures founder Thomas Tull (a project to be directed by VFK wizard Tim Miller that's still in development at the production company). Tull insisted that the mystical crime story had to stay put in its British setting because the country has "deep history of the weird and mystic, and America doesn't have that." While Ellis was appreciative of Tull's dedication to the source material, he saw potential in America's backstory.
"We think of America as a young country," Ellis says. "America's history doesn't go back hundreds of thousands of years, but America does have that buried map inside it too. That the was the thought of Gun Machine, the hidden maps of America, and particularly New York." The factually-driven thriller paved the way for Ellis' to deviate from the typical detective archetypes. A man of the law who chooses brains over brawns. "I didn't want to do any kind of cliche cop. Given the space to investigate in a novel, I kind of wanted to say how introverted and in his own head a cop could be and yet still prove to be an active force."
Unlike many of Ellis' comic creations, Tallow isn't a superhero. In Gun Machine , the thrills come from Tallow losing himself to the job. "I wanted to see how far into his own head I could put a guy and still have it work on the page, still have him operate as a cop. Without being a genius, without being Sherlock Holmes, [he] could still think they're way out of a situation like that."
Gun Machine arrives in a heated moment in American politics. Following a string of violent outbursts, all eyes are on the U.S.' stance on gun ownership and rights. As the debate turns to the world of entertainment — movies, TV, video games, and comics depiction of violence continuously cited as a an inciting cause of real tragedy — Ellis stands firm. "My obligations as a creator are to the story first, everything else second," he says. "While there is still violence in the world, it's a thing that needs to be talked about in stories. I'm not helping myself, the story, or anyone else, by shying away from it because I personally find it uncomfortable. The fact is, there are things I find uncomfortable that I should be writing about in order to find out what I think about them and to find out why they make me uncomfortable."
This isn't the first time Ellis has seen his work impacted by the world around him. In 1999, Ellis penned an issue of John Constantine: Hellblazer entitled "Shoot," which dealt heavily with school shootings. "Columbine happened about 10 days before it was due to go to print. It was done — colored and off to the printers." The comic was eventually released — in 2010.
"Gun Machine doesn't speak to Aurora or Newtown in a way that that particular Hellblazer issue spoke after the fact to Columbine," Ellis says. "I have no concerns on that score and Gun Machine is certainly not a book that glorifies guns. It is a book that points out how stupidly easy it is to get a gun." The author believes that in order to tackle U.S. history, Gun Machine had to focus on firearms. "I've been writing about America for 20 years now," Ellis says. "And if you're gonna write fiction in America, you have to know about guns. So in one way, Gun Machine is the culmination of 20 years or reading about guns."
Ellis is, for lack of a better phrasing, a man who sticks to his guns. He's a writer who strives for truth over pandering to the current climate — when asked if there's room in today's world for a a automatic-weapon-toting hero like The Punisher, he jokes that any alteration would come off as a "very special episode of Blossom" that comic readers would write off. In Gun Machine, he's entranced by his emotionally complex characters and the gritty underbelly they're forced to traverse. It's not a pretty world, but it's his story to tell.
Gun Machine is currently being developed as a TV series by Trauma creator Dario Scardapane, with a pilot script having been handed in weeks ago. Ellis stays out of that world too. It's not his story to tell. Same with movie adaptations — Red 2 is currently in the works and Ellis is looking forward to attending the premiere with his daughter. That's it. The writer commits himself to his writing, his projects, and his life, regardless of any political discussion that might try to hook him in.
The only thing you might convince him to do is throw away his old VHS tapes. Maybe.
Gun Machine is available now in hardcover and e-book.
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Mulholland Books; Vertigo]
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